Louis Braille was born today in 1809.

No doubt someone has read aloud to you from a book, and you have listened to recorded readings called audiobooks. It can be an enjoyable experience, but how does it compare with the richness and complexity of reading? Is it easy to scan the material to find specific information? Can you go over the words again and again, savoring the language or seeking deeper meaning? What if instead of teaching people to read, teachers simply played audiobooks in class? For many people with blindness, there might be no other option if not for the work of Louis Braille, born more than 200 years ago this week.

Braille was born on Jan. 4, 1809 in Coupvray, a small town near Paris. At the age of 3, he accidentally poked his eye with a sharp tool in his father’s workshop. Although the wound was minor, it soon became infected, and the infection spread to both eyes. By the age of 5, Louis Braille was completely sightless.

Braille was a bright and enthusiastic student despite his blindness. In 1821, young Braille attended a presentation by Charles Barbier, an artillery officer in the French army. Barbier had devised a system that soldiers could use to communicate silently and in darkness. His system, called “night writing,” relied on patterns of dots raised on paper. The dots could be read by touch. Braille was inspired to develop a similar system for use by people who are blind. He spent the next 3 years working on his system.

Braille’s system was based on a series of  “cells.” A single Braille cell consists of up to six raised dots arranged in two rows of three. Sixty-four combinations are possible using such a system. In Braille’s system, a particular combination can represent a letter, a number, a punctuation mark, or a whole word. Louis published the first Braille book in 1829. He later added symbols for math and music to his system.

Braille’s system is nearly 200 years old, but it is far from obsolete. Today, electronic Braille displays make use of small pins on a portable frame. The pins can be raised and lowered and are read by touch. Once read, the pins may retract and pop up again to display new text. Such Braille devices can be used to explore the Internet.

ImageThe Braille Alphabet

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